When I saw the proposed “modernized” Rules of Golf change that eliminates a penalty for removing loose impediments in bunkers, it gave me such a start my laptop bounced sideways off my lap, conking my sleeping dog, Sparky, in the head. Then, when I saw that, barring some bizarre objection, we’ll soon be required to search for a lost ball for three minutes instead of the eternity of five, I stood and cheered—after carefully removing the laptop so as not to re-conk Sparky. As I read through the USGA and R&A’s drastic revisions of a rules framework that has been essentially intact for more than 30 years, I brightened again and again. It won’t all happen by 2019, when the new rules take effect, but what we’ll all see eventually will be golf the way it oughta be.
The new Rules will need some smoothing out. The ruling bodies have invited input from the public during a six-month review period that winds down in August, and where individual rules are concerned, it’s not a fine line of perfect. I have nitpicks and a few strident objections—who doesn’t? But the rules overhaul in general is a landmark achievement by the USGA and R&A, probably the most significant in their histories. Their approach and reformed attitude signals a liberating future for the game. Golf’s existence was never at stake—such judgments were histrionic—but the unwieldiness of the rule book, punitive nature of its application and the complicated manner in which it has been presented has sometimes made an earnest, law-abiding playing of the game similar to combing chewing gum from your hair.
The ruling bodies had no choice but address the current rules in a seismic way. Mike Davis, the executive director of the USGA, had early on demonstrated a quick willingness to adjust USGA course setups in its championships, making them less penal and constrictive by introducing graduated rough at the 2006 U.S. Open at Winged Foot. Perhaps emboldened by the positive reaction, he and the Rules of Golf Committee shifted their attention to the rules. The feeling was overwhelming that many rules were not only petty and outright frivolous—knocking down a single leaf from a tree on a practice swing could, until 2012, get you whacked with a one-stroke penalty—but that punishments outweighed crimes.
There were so many vivid and public examples of bad rules being clumsily applied that in hindsight they lubricated the revamping process. The most notable was Dustin Johnson’s being penalized after his ball moved at the 2016 U.S. Open. Millennial golfers especially screamed at the tops of their lungs and, thanks to Twitter and blogs, golfers regardless of age could not summon cogent defenses of rules atrocities that by some cosmic stroke of bad luck, were happening with greater frequency. Tiger at the 2013 Masters. Anna Nordqvist at the 2016 U.S. Women’s Open. Not to mention Dustin’s first dust up, when he grounded a club in a bunker at Whistling Straits on the final hole of the 2010 PGA Championship, an arguably correct, though poorly administered ruling.
Davis is the latest in a long line of policy makers, and he is different from his predecessors. Prior to him becoming the association’s executive director in 2011, the USGA hosted an unbroken chain of administrators who more or less fell in line with a code of strictness imposed by the legendary Joseph C. Dey. Brilliant, forceful and a visionary, Dey was the USGA’s man out front from 1934-’68. It was he who was largely behind the first joint USGA-R&A huddling on the rules in 1952. He was a brilliant, forceful, good man, but it was he who, many felt, injected a powerful but parochial notion that golf wasn’t meant to be fair, that erring on the side of strictness with the rules was good for us, that suffering is noble. Dey, as a young man, had entertained ideas about going into the clergy, and he approached the game almost like it was created by a higher power. The game grew under his stewardship, and nearly every victim of rules vicissitudes not only suffered, but would express gratitude and blame fate, God or themselves. All that was missing was a pandybat across the knuckles in addition to the two strokes they would lay on you with directness and not an error of sympathy. We accepted authority back then.
This approach had to change, both because the mores of ruling bodies was changing along with the new realization that, ultimately, it’s the public that the ruling bodies serve, and their will can’t be thwarted forever.
When the USGA and R&A buckled down in earnest a few years ago to study a new rules set, no area was spared consideration. In addition to the rules of play, there are many new definitions, expanding old ones and updating antiquated ones such as “four-ball” which now will go by the common everyday expression of “best-ball.” Water hazards still exist, but will fall under the broader category of “penalty areas.”
It couldn’t have been easy for them. “These changes were not made over dinner and a bottle of wine,” says David Eger, an amateur and pro player of note who served on the USGA Rules of Golf Committee from 1984-’92 and later was Senior Director of Rules and Competitions. “Even small changes usually take years, with extensive discussion and study as to how the change will affect other rules.
“I can only imagine the amount of debate on a change like permitting the tapping of spike marks and other imperfections on the green,” Eger says. “The impact on pace of play is sort of an unknown quantity, especially on a course like Pebble Beach, where the greens late in the day look like a minefield. I’m sure there are good reasons for a change like that, but I’m interested to see how it plays out.”
What overall approaches are apparent in the new rules? Most notable is the elimination of penalties for some violations. You can remove loose impediments in water hazards (which fall under the heading “penalty areas”), even ground your club. You can putt with the flagstick in the hole, unattended. You can drop a ball from any height you wish. Whereas penalties for crimes in everyday society are felt by many as not being severe enough, penalty situations in the new rules are in almost every instance either being relaxed, or done away with.
Second is simplicity. We’ve yet to see the precise wording of the new rules, because they’ve yet to be written. But there are strong suggestions that confusing or antiquated terminology may become more easily read and comprehended. The same goes for referencing a rule; the bodies are hard at work making situations easier to find on mobile devices, presumably with key words or obvious phrases a snap to look up.
Then there is the goal to speed up play. Decreasing the search time for a lost ball from five minutes to three chips away at that. So, presumably, do a few others new rules, such as an emphasis on “ready golf.” This may become possible for determined speed demons. As for the turtles, well, we can hope.
An overview of the proposed changes, along with many accompanying videos, is available on the USGA web site at usga.org. You’ll notice that the USGA spotlights five major rules changes, but there are a host of others contained in the actual drafts, which are free to download.
The direction we’re headed sparks thought on even more changes I’d like to see. I personally dislike the penalty for a ball moving in any instance. All drops, penalty or for relief, could be a uniform distance—two club-lengths, please—with no ill effect. More antiquated language could be addressed; when was the last time you saw a ball “visibly cut, cracked or out of shape”? The only thing that can hurt a golf ball is a fairway mower, though Eger insists an especially abrasive cart path can shread a cover to the point where substituting a new ball should be allowed.
But I love the approach of our ruling bodies, and hold the good men and women there in utter awe for the efforts they have made to get us to this point. In years to come, as good reason and sense becomes a normal way of going, Sparky becomes decreasingly at risk for getting conked by a flying laptop.